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Discovering Edmonia Lewis at Saint-Gaudens
I will never look at the Shaw Memorial again without thinking of Edmonia Lewis.
Lewis was a sculptor of African-American and Native American heritage whose life story deserves to be dramatized on the stage. (Spoiler: someone has already done so.) Treated poorly—accused of poisoning other students and of theft of art supplies—she was driven out of Oberlin College before she could graduate. Lewis eventually settled in Rome.
But first, to Boston, where in 1864 she met abolitionist Robert Gould Shaw, famously depicted astride his horse in Augustus Saint-Gaudens’ The Robert Gould Shaw and Massachusetts 54th Regiment Memorial” (the “Shaw Memorial”), on display in Boston and at the Saint-Gaudens National Historical Park in Cornish NH. At last Saturday’s Juneteenth celebration, Dana Green, the outgoing (alas) Public History and Art Fellow at the Park, reported that Lewis’s sculpted bust of Shaw preceded Saint-Gaudens’ creation, and sales of 100 copies of the bust helped to financially sustain Lewis’s professional artistic life.
Green also spoke of connections between Shaw and his troops and Harriet Tubman. Though she is known for her work in the Underground Railroad, Tubman also aided the wounded and buried the dead following the 54th Regiment’s defeat at Fort Wagner. By some accounts, she may have been the one to have served Robert Gould Shaw his last meal before he died in battle.
The late artist Lawrence Nowlan of Windsor, Vermont and Cornish, New Hampshire was present in spirit at the Juneteenth presentation. In the Shaw Memorial, several African-American soldiers of the 54th Regiment (Saint-Gaudens recruited his 40 models by approaching them one by one at a New York City train station) are depicted walking, some on the distant side of Shaw’s horse and therefore close to invisible. Nowlan worked with the original sculpture and photographs to capture and cast the faces (photo just above) of the previously unseen soldiers.
Other current offerings at the incomparable Saint-Gaudens site include the newly refurbished Amor Caritas (above, and previously described with video here) and an exhibition in the Picture Gallery entitled Breach: Logbook 22—Bound by Courtney M. Leonard, a 2021 recipient of the Saint-Gaudens Fellowship. Leonard’s work may look familiar as other of her works are on display at the Hood Museum. .
To return for a moment to Edmonia Lewis, she may be receiving a small part of the due denied her during her lifetime. The United States Post Office issued a stamp (below) in her honor earlier this year. And in 2022, she was awarded a degree posthumously by Oberlin College.
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Susan B. Apel shuttered a lifelong career as a law professor to continue an interest (since kindergarten) in writing. Her freelance business, The Next Word, includes literary and feature writing; her work has appeared in a variety of lit mags and other publications including Art New England, The Woven Tale Press, The Arts Fuse, and Persimmon Tree. She connects with her neighbors through Artful, her blog about arts and culture in the Upper Valley. She’s in love with the written word.